Posted by Guest on June 24, 2019 in Blog

Lately, the integrity of our democracy, including the fundamental right to vote, is regularly under fire. The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) plays an integral role in the protection, or lack thereof, of the democratic rights of citizens. Next week, June 25, 2019 marks the anniversary of the landmark Shelby v. Holder Supreme Court decision. Six years later, the decision continues to have a lasting impact on voting rights and the disenfranchisement of voters nationwide.

Background 

For almost five decades, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 protected the rights of Americans, especially people of color, from institutional discrimination and disenfranchisement. Then in 2010,Shelby County, AL sued to declare Section 5 of the VRA unconstitutional. Arguably, Section 5 is one of the most important parts of the VRA as it requires jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to undergo federal scrutiny before making any changes to voting procedures. The section functioned to ensure any proposed procedural changes would not disproportionately hurt minority voters. After the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia held Section 5 constitutional, the Supreme Court ruled in a 2013 appeal that Section 4(b) of the VRA was unconstitutional. Section 4(b) determined which jurisdictions would be subject to federal scrutiny under Section 5, yet the Supreme Court believed the coverage formula detailed by Section 4(b) was antiquated and no longer valid to review jurisdictions. In their decision, the Supreme Court left the door open for Congress to create and pass a new coverage formula that is in tune with the current climate. However, Congress has failed to pass any amendment to the VRA to replace Section 4(b) since 2013. As a result, Section 5 of the VRA has been rendered useless, for without Section 4(b) and criteria to determine which jurisdictions are subject to preclearance, no jurisdictions can actually be reviewed according to Section 5.

Consequences

The state laws following the Shelby Decision have been sweeping in their effect and disastrous for voter turnout and disenfranchisement of minority, young, and elderly voters. Over 20 states have passed restrictive voter laws, such as removing polling stations, limiting early voting, or purging voter rolls, since 2013. In jurisdictions previously covered by Section 5, minority turnout dropped several points since the Shelby ruling, due to local officials’ newfound ability to make unrestricted changes. Several states, including Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and North Carolina, all states which were at least partially covered by Section 4(b), passed extremely strict voter ID laws, effectively preventing hundreds of thousands of registered voters from voting. Furthermore, almost 16 million people have been purged from voter rolls between 2014-2016, including in eight states that engaged in either illegal purges or the use of unlawful purge rules. The “one person, one vote” rule has been violated repeatedly as redistricting efforts minimize the votes of minorities or people within certain parties. And most recently, the 2018 midterm election cycle wasplagued with allegations of voter suppression across the country, most notably in Georgia, North Dakota, and Kansas. The VRA was formerly able to prevent many of these voter suppression tactics from being enacted. Shelby v. Holder, however, bolstered attempts to block voters’ access to the ballot.

Looking Forward

The laws following the Shelby decision have not endured without resistance. The very first bill introduced under the 116th Congress wasa package of reforms of voting rights and corruption laws, known as the For the People Act of 2019. The voting rights reforms involve prohibiting unfair voter roll purging, stopping partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, and would rollback existing, burdensome state voter ID laws. The bill would also create a national automatic voter registration program and ensure the restoration of rights for returning citizens who have completed their full sentences. All of these reforms would combat the drastic influence of Shelby v. Holder. Moreover, Representative Sewell of Alabama has also reintroduced the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019 (VRAA) to replace Section 4 of the VRA. The act would establish a new coverage formula that evaluates jurisdictions with histories of discrimination from the past 25 years, and these jurisdictions would be covered for the next 10 years. Thus, the VRAA would place 12 states under federal scrutiny when implementing new voting laws. Perhaps the most significant decisions on which voting rights reforms depend on are two impending Supreme Court cases on partisan gerrymandering. The Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of maps drawn by Republicans in North Carolina and Democrats in Maryland who openly admitted to redrawing districts to minimize the power of the other party. The Supreme Court holds tremendous power to change the future of voting rights, and the entire country is waiting with bated breath for the Court’s decision to either defend or erode democracy. No matter the outcome, the work to ensure full participation in fair and free elections will continue until that goal is met.

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Maya Chamra is a 2019 Summer Field Intern.